This piece is about 7 printed pages long
The meeting between Argentine poet Romina Freschi and US poet Deborah Meadows took place during II Lecturas de Primavera Buenos Aires 2006 organized by Casa Carriego and Casa de la Poesía de la Cuidad in coordination with the cultural ministry of Buenos Aires, October 23-26, 2006 in which Plebella publications played a supporting role.
The interview transpired by email after their discussion during a visit to Belliza y Felicidad storefront gallery in Buenos Aires, a site for local artists that is often used for poetry readings or performance space.
This interview will be published in Spanish in Freschi’s Plebella 10 along with translations of a few of Meadows’ poems (http://www.plebella.com.ar/).
II Lecturas de Primavera Buenos Aires 2006: (http://www.lecturasdeprimavera.blogspot.com/).
Meadows: First, Romina, thanks for this interview. To be in Plebella that, as you informed me, takes a neologism for its name derived from “plebian” and “beautiful” is apt, as is the journal’s commitment to those of us poets of working class origins by using the important Latin American poets Ruben Dario and Nestor Perlongher as models. Ok, I wrote my first poems as a young child, but it was not until I was older that I thought of myself as a writer due, in part, to the way working class young women are tracked with a limited set of possibilities. But, now, looking back, it was there all along. I would refer readers to an online interview where I wrote of the mixture in my childhood, “of sacred and profane expressions, so though we learned to sing Latin and English hymns, we also played jump-rope songs that dragged the mighty through the mud while bodily counting rhythm, shook to newly-produced rock and roll pop tunes on the radio … “:
and to my Electronic Poetry Center author page: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/meadows/
that include further information.
Deborah Meadows with Brazilian poet Mauro Faccioni Filho in Buenos Aires, October 2006
I mention the online interview because it covers philosophical references but not visual arts that are, and have been, important in my life. As a city Buffalo, where I grew up was rich in modernist art such as the Albright-Knox art collection that I frequented with works of artists such as Clyfford Still, Jasper Johns, Rothko, etc. The then newly-designed Art Park on reclaimed land in the Niagara River gorge opened to include site-installed works, early conceptual and performance art, offered opera, and theatre. Then, and now, the earthworks of Robert Smithson, the sort of directions he took were very important to me and are thrilling. As a young person I painted and drew but did not see a way to afford doing visual arts but learned that “doing” poetry, or philosophy or math for that matter, is “free” requiring thought, space, paper scraps, a public library, etc. Of course, to move out of isolated work and be received as a writer requires other community and institutional entreé, support, and engagement where having publishers, for example, is important. The price of admission for some may be the wages of exclusion for others.
I like what Paul Celan has said about poetry as the memory of language. And writers such as James Joyce who are concerned with the etymological and palimpsestic layers of cultural accretion and variation show how to carry the past into the burden of today. Invention, so important, how else can we account for the rich play in serious as well as playful experimental poetry, chant, incantation?
Too many to list here, but a few of the poets I find important are Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès, Rosmarie Waldrop, Osip Mandelstam, Dante, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Arkadaii Dragomoschenko, César Vallejo, Basho, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubard, Reina María Rodríguez. And Lorine Niedecker, she too has worked as a cleaning lady.
Well, the question selects for widely known figures of whom I would name Paulo Friere, Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, Henry David Thoreau, Cesar Chavez, Walter Benjamin, Nelson Mandela, but many whose names are not widely known have been important figures to me: those who have been the backbone of labor struggles in higher education, and those humanities professors who added to my and many others’ learning, and colleagues with whom I developed interdisciplinary courses and from whom I learned so much on the larger role of education in human liberation.
Howard (my live-in boyfriend) and I have lived in a small house for over twenty years. He likes to watch morning news on tv, and I like to retreat to the back room with coffee to write for a few hours. Then, schedule permitting, I go on a walk in the arroyo that extends the writing process in ways I’m not sure I can describe, then return and go to campus to teach my classes. There are other campus activities I’ve been part of over the years, too. During summer, when the school year is over, and most weekends, Howard and I drive to some land we have in the Piute Mountains where we built a little house on weekends that has photovoltaic solar panels and a wood stove, and there I have extended time for study and writing as well as walks and necessary tasks.
Typical of working class, I have had many jobs: worked in a factory in high school, painted newly-constructed homes, cleaned homes, and so forth before I entered teaching. I teach humanities in a four-year college that is publicly funded and has the role of providing a college education for students from working-class to middle-class strata though we also have some students from very poor backgrounds, children of farm laborers in California, for example. In many ways I am an outsider in academia given it has been the domain of white, male middle-class, but also an outsider given that during my teaching years, there has been the rise of corporate values and practices inserted into the university system. I have found it important to create a home there by associating with faculty who are concerned with labor and education equity issues to include students from all economic classes and protect our salaries and dignity in the workplace, who advance forms of education that encourage critical and creative thought and practice (many of us influenced by Friere), and who can hold up against those who desire education to become a treatment plan changing free-thinking students to units of docile conformity introducing, in the latest trend, measurement techniques that are ill-matched to serious intellectual work.
Deborah Meadows with Argentine poet-publisher Romina Freschi at Belliza y Felicidad gallery, Buenos Aires, October 2006
Yes, I spend hours each day reading. In addition to literary works, I read commentary, philosophy, political news and commentary, art theory, history, some science.
I think of my poetry as enacting “readings” even some poems as “fillets” that slice from a source, slice away from the bone for consumption. If many of my poems are readings of works — literary, commentary, philosophy, and scholarly works — as fillets, they rend those into paper-thin pieces that can then be seen through to other layers. Though cousin to collage, these are readings with today’s blades where radical disjunctions may be a means rather than ends, as in collage. Some will increase pressure on the reading/writing distinction — more and more pressure, how much before it breaks? Fillets use canonic texts or everyday consumer products or commentary to demonstrate “our time” and tools and campfires in readings that “mirror” not nature but a flurry of semiotic tics and pulses. A way to “scarify” beauty, presupposes its existence, perhaps, in a collapse of critique.
Interesting. Well, while I attended SUNY, Buffalo the influences there were from experimental literature in courses with several professors including Raymond Federman, Myles Slatin, with Kenneth Inada in Eastern philosophy and other courses in philosophy, contemporary art, film, and so forth. Years later, in graduate school in Los Angeles, I studied with Bill Fick, and we subsequently met to discuss poetry for many years after — a very important conversation of more than two decades.
But back then, Federman’s classes and other courses that took up the studies of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett preceded Language poets, preceded Bernstein and Howe as department professors in that instituition, and certainly preceded my exposure to their particular works. So I see them as a subset of the larger, older, various grouping “experimental literature” with an emphasis on writers of post-World War II and post-colonial examples. And so, those are my “tendencies.” I became acquainted with the linguistics and philosophy that Language poets draw on early, and separately, from their poetries, and read their works somewhat late because I had a period of not being able to afford poetry journals or transportation to go hear such writers. They made important advances, and writers such as Barrett Watten, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein and others of the first grouping are ones whose works are now central to my reading and thought. They endured a lot of negative reception and could have missed out on the critical and institutional location they now have, and, like the first to go in social movements, endured the worst which should make it easier for those who follow. I feel that debt very much especially as someone who broke ground in some local labor issues and endured losses and criticism before enjoying some gains, and those with the hope that it would be easier for co-workers who come next.
We have been living through an important unpacking of the culture/biology divide that has helped us see how some social practices are “naturalized,” made to seem a part of nature such as proscribed roles along lines of class, race, and gender, or forms of violence and aggression, as if they are examples of breaking a branch from a tree that could grow in no other way, determined. So, when understood as social or cultural practices that can be undone or revised or are already historically contingent, then we have some means of political critique and some hope for social improvement, some de-mystification of practices that can fool us into thinking they are eternal, exempt from time and place.
We understand that culture has many faces, not only that we may no longer be satisfied with the story that there is a universal culture, but that our own poetic practices must be examined in ways they can be, have been, co-opted by concentrations of power and might collude with glorifying excesses of power and suspect cultural “gifts” such as torture and war. For the post-World War II writers who came before me as teachers, “beauty” is very problematic given the Nazi program in visual arts, opera, architecture, etc. and the campaign against so-called “Degenerate Art.” Many of my teachers and poetic antecedents also include those who advocated for “Bread and Roses,” that we need food to be liberated yet also need to nourish other aspects of our selves, and that movements that might include working class poets and Negritude poets, may seek models and may construct traditions and practices not yet approved or legitimated by institutional centers.
It is not possible for me to write about US history or refer to Melville’s work, for example, without considering the occurrence and legacy of chattel slavery and wage slavery, without considering issues of capitalism, social roles, constitutions of self and other, those meetings across lines, the contradictions of social experiments in democracy that have been financially underwritten by colonial conquest and slave trade economies. It is always there even when not discussed overtly; there in the very etymological layers and syntactic structures of language.
Another facet of this issue: cultural expressions, i.e., language, ritual, ceremony, technological features, literature and arts are seen most often as constitutive of what it means to be human, and under duress (war, forces of globalization, aggressive commercialization, etc.) they may require preservation which also means a critical approach to understanding whose social or cultural practices and products already get preserved and through what institutions, for what ends, and whether those institutions might be inadequate for newcomers who have been excluded, those whose societies have experienced violent disruption and material deprivation.
For example, in Los Angeles, the SouthWest Museum, through an institutional origin related to the efforts of Charles Lummis and local art dealer Grace Nicholson developed one of the finest collections of indigenous pottery and other material items, the second largest (after the Smithsonian Institution) collection of photographs of Native Americans, and a sizable collection of wax-cylinder audio recording of Native American songs and prayer that are invaluable records. During a recent exhibit my class was told, that through reference use of those wax-cylinder recordings, Black Foot of Montana scholars and leaders were able to recover six words they had thought lost. Yet Lummis collected some items that should never have been collected for a museum or anthropological collection.
Over the years, through activism and passage of various pieces of legislation to repatriate items, the institution has changed and continues to change. When I asked a former curator what he sees changing in the field, he not only mentioned the added participation of Native American scholars and leaders in the curatorial process, but he cited a Native American owned and designed museum that emphasized less the framing of items of material culture and more on language, cultural expressions that are functions of time such as ceremony and music. Indeed, a few years ago, Howard and I visited a newly constructed museum in the Navajo capital city of Window Rock that mounted an interesting language exhibit. We can consider that not all are purveyors of textuality. Thinkers in this area that I’ve found important include anthropologists James Clifford and Paul Rabinow.
I’m condensing a lot here, but would add that we see an analog in an institution such as the literary anthology. Once those who had been excluded are included, then the form itself may be revealed to be insufficient. Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies are good examples of this: not long into the collection of indigenous chants, blues of Ma Rainey, poetry of experimental typography, avant garde uses of page formatting, figural inks of Henri Michaux, petroglyphs, body art of Schneeman, and we see the format of the page must change, the book itself is given new life as our practices of reading are challenged and expanded. Presently we see forms such as website, audio, and small video have become features of books.
I return often to questions that concern history and science as forms of constructed coherence, their emplotment as sets of familiar or satisfying devices that may, in turn, tell a story requiring a critical examination of assumptions and ways these fields re-inscribe their own practices to the exclusion of other ways, truths. It’s hard not to notice how poets have vexed relations to their own identities, how in post-liberation moments they hazard a repetitive recognizable “identity” that not only can become trite poetry but risks turning an agile culture into a fixed, timeless collectible, a falsely stable “self”. Here experimental poet Rodrigo Toscano, for example, moves in a rich, performative direction, as have many of the Pacific rim poets we read in Chain and Tinfish publications who are working with and against the specialty boutique of identity with all the possible hazards of commodification that phrase suggests.
Maybe this is not the best way: to conceive of hubs of literary life, but there have been several so far. The primary one is Buffalo where I grew up and went to school, a city that produced many poets including recent poet Mark Nowak. I had several visits to Casa de las Américas and the azotea scene of Reina María Rodríguez in Havana where I met many interesting poets. In Los Angeles where I live, there have been writers around Douglas Messerli’s press and recently there have been interesting developments and reading series such as The Germ series, The Smell, CalArts Redcat poetry conferences, the one at UCLA with Walter Lew and Harryette Mullen. I had a chance to visit Brooklyn and brush up against the lively poetry scene both there and related to St. Mark’s Poetry Project and will return there soon. And here in Buenos Aires. But that doesn’t take in, for example, the rich online literary community where I have a chance to be in touch with Australian poet-publisher John Tranter, read works of UK poets and publishers such as Tony Frazer, learn news of poets on the Buffalo poetics list and the subpoetics list, to converse with important young poet, Lance Phillips through the Here Comes Everybody Interviews and many others. An odd thing happens when we operate on an international plane: some of us meet up in Havana, such as Rodolfo Hässler then again here in Buenos Aires. Recently I had the chance to meet the Waldrops along with Steve Macaffery and Karen McCormick and UK poets Middleton and Lopez in Ruhr University, Germany.
Well, Buenos Aires, of course, has a high literary reputation as does New York, Havana, Paris, and it was no disappointment. I learned that this was the second of the first two Lecturas using a new format that includes some but not only poets reading at the Rosario conference. And it seems a good direction to curate this event in a new way. Like all festivals there will be some poets whose works I like more than others, but the occasion for the international conversation is invaluable. I found the energy stimulating and see there is a lively group of younger poets contending for their day in the sun who are developing new ideas and practices. And I see the more established poets also sharpening their positions in open, mature debate. This was an important time for me, and I was lucky to be part of it. That the government will provide support to bring out an anthology of poetry from the festival is a significant move. I also had a chance to talk with some poets not part of the festival, and again, heard lively committed views, and I had a chance to visit with you, Romina, to the underground gallery and was pleased to see the many publications there, that use Tinfish-style “found” materials. I would not be surprised if future Las Lecturas would expand to include some performance poets that eschew the table format to incorporate multi-media aspects. I also encountered an important conversation on the preservation of Patagonian indigenous language and literatures.
Sure, the Stein Award is a publisher’s award, meaning there is neither a cash award nor an application process but a selection made by publisher Douglas Messerli (of Green Integer Press and the former Sun & Moon Press) or a judge from the press’ advisory board. The award is meant to celebrate a new work of experimental literature. I think of the figure of Gertrude Stein as a sort of patron saint for Douglas Messerli, for not only has his poetry been deeply influenced by Stein, but he has published much of her work and has named many awards, series, and even the plaza outside his former offices after her. Indeed she has been an important figure for Language poets (particularly Lyn Hejinian who brought added critical attention on how to read her works) whose works Messerli has also published and helped develop a readership. From a conversation with Messerli, I learned he plans to publish an anthology each year titled “The Gertrude Stein Awards of 2005,” “of 2006,” etc. as a direct alternative to David Lehman’s “Best American Poetry of 2005,” “of 2006,” etc. because Lehman typically excludes experimental poetry yet his anthologies are an important institution in US letters. I believe Messerli posted his introductory essay on his Green Integer site with these views in greater detail than I have here, at http://www.greeninteger.com in Number 4 of his online Green Integer Review. So, the Stein awards will help bring more readers and more consideration of those of us working in an experimental vein.
To close, Romina, I look forward to reading more works of Argentine poets, yours included, and to an ongoing conversation across borders.
Deborah Meadows teaches in the Liberal Studies department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her works of poetry include: involutia (Shearsman Press, UK, 2007), Thin Gloves (Green Integer, 2006), Representing Absence (Green Integer, 2004), Itinerant Men (Krupskaya, 2004), and two chapbooks, Growing Still (Tinfish Press, 2005) and The 60s and 70s: from The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick (Tinfish Press, 2003). Her Electronic Poetry Center author page is located at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/meadows/.
Romina Freschi, (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1974). As a writer she has published redondel (1998 y 2003), Estremezcales (2000), Petróleo (2002) Villa Ventana, illustrated by Fernando Fazzolari, and El-Pe-yO (2003). She is a MA and Literature professor (UBA), and is the editor of the review Plebella(www. plebella.com.ar). You can read a group of poems by Romina Freschi in this issue of Jacket.